Impressions of Nietzsche
- The Lives of Enoch Powell by Patrick Cosgrave
Bodley Head, 518 pp, £16.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 370 30871 9
What makes the House of Commons more than an antechamber to government and an endless dry run of the next general election is the presence on its benches of some individuals of great character, great intellect or great oddity. Few moments have more become the House of Commons since the war than the speech of Enoch Powell in the early hours of 28 July 1959 on the scandalous deaths of Kikuyu prisoners at Hola camp in Kenya. It was delivered with precision of language, in ordered sequence and with what the present author calls ‘an incandescent emotion’. Few who were present on that occasion would ever forget it. Yet this combination of remorseless logic and volcanic emotion could at times, and at one time in particular, be directed at a target which seemed chillingly unsuited to it.
It is because of the protean nature of Powell’s gifts of intellect as well as the odd shape of his career that Patrick Cosgrave decided to write of his subject’s ‘Lives’. This is a mistake, since Powell’s life has been very much of a piece. The failure, in the conventional sense, of his political career arose from the same personal traits and gifts as the precocious success of his earlier academic and military careers. The editor and translator of Llyfr Belgywryd (the Law Book of the Welsh King Hywel the Good), the author of the Lexicon to Herodotus, of a massive history of The House of Lords in the Middle Ages, of a short life of Joseph Chamberlain, and of the major work on the reinterpretation of the New Testament on which he is presently engaged, is perceptibly the same man who attacked the Royal Titles Bill for recognising republics inside a Commonwealth that was no longer called ‘British’, who fought a sustained campaign against British membership of the European Community that became all the more intense as people declined to embrace its rationale and who set out with bleak, relentless logic the case for monetarism and the free market decades before Margaret Thatcher presented herself as what he thought was a most unsuitable candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party.
The attempt to supply a separate ‘Life’ for each chapter lands the author in the absurdity of dividing up Powell’s time in Northern Ireland between one chapter called ‘The Ulsterman’ (which, for all his conscientious application, Powell patently was not) and one-called ‘The Philosopher’ (which in a broad sense Powell has been, but not especially then). Having chosen an accomplished prose stylist as his subject, Cosgrave inevitably suffers from the comparison: but the book is well-written, except for one or two turgid passages of political exposition and an occasional eccentricity of usage (Powell can hardly have been overjoyed to read of South Down being ‘a simulacrum of national interest’). Curiously enough, given his background, the author is least happy in his handling of Irish matters, where his hasty summary of the Irish-American connection is seriously misleading.
Enoch Powell once observed to me, when I was the political correspondent for the Economist in the period just before Cosgrave held a similar position on the Spectator: ‘If you want a clue to my approach to politics I would advise you to read in Hansard my speech of last Wednesday when I moved an amendment to delete the word “the” and substitute the word “a”.’ This came back to mind on seeing Gough Whitlam, former Prime Minister of Australia and former pupil of Professor Enoch Powell, recollecting on television his perplexity that anyone could have been able to make Herodotus sound boring. But this is the same man, animated by the same regard for pushing textual criticism up to and over the limit, who so touched the emotions of the British public as to make him at one stage of his career the object of unrivalled loathing and adulation.